President Barack Obama is at the vanguard of a coordinated effort to silence political opponents in an effort falsely sold as concern over good government, the Senate’s top Republican said on Friday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), a self-described "First Amendment hawk," said Friday that the ongoing scandal over the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups was a natural consequence of the president’s attempts to delegitimize political opposition.
"I don’t believe that the president ever actually picked up a phone and told someone over at the IRS to slow-walk those applications or audit anybody. But the truth is, he didn’t have to. The message was clear enough," McConnell told a crowd at the American Enterprise Institute.
McConnell said the campaign to silence political opponents began in early 2010 after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which struck down limits on the free speech rights of corporations, unions, and nonprofit groups.
Obama and many on the left claimed they were simply concerned about activities they felt were corrosive to the democratic process. McConnell disputed that assertion.
"They weren’t interested in the integrity of the process," McConnell insisted. "Make no mistake: the goal was to win at any cost, and that meant shutting up their opponents in any way they could."
The legislative reaction to Citizens United, then, was not an attempt to improve the political process as much as it was an attempt to expose conservative groups and their donors to harassment.
McConnell, who warned of this effort last year at another speech at AEI, said the IRS scandal vindicates those concerns.
IRS targeting of conservative groups "coincided with a very public campaign by the president, and a small army of left-wing allies in and out of government, to vilify anyone who had recently formed a group around conservative causes," McConnell said.
Much attention has been paid to whether IRS officials in Cincinnati were instructed to target Tea Party groups by superiors in Washington, or even the president himself.
Obama did not have to issue those orders, McConnell said. Tea Party targeting was the product of "the culture of intimidation this president and his allies created around any person or group that spoke up for conservatism—or against the direction the President and his administration wanted to take us."
Obama’s rhetoric from early 2010 through the 2012 elections left no doubt about which groups should receive the most scrutiny from the IRS, McConnell said.
"The so-called ‘special interests, he said, would ‘flood’ the political process, with money that might be coming from ‘foreign entities,'" McConnell said the president was telling the American people. "‘The problem,’ he said, ‘is nobody knows’ who’s behind these groups. They were ‘shadowy.’ They might even be ‘foreign controlled.’"
Proposals from left-wing members of Congress to address Citizens United range from the dangerous to the "absurd," McConnell said.
Efforts are underway at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to force more disclosure of political spending, despite that being "utterly irrelevant" to their legislative charters.
A constitutional amendment proposed by a pair of Senate Democrats that would eliminate all constitutional rights for corporations and nonprofits, while troubling, is "an absurd proposal" that "won’t go anywhere," he said.
The efforts to stifle conservative speech, McConnell said, will continue: "They may seem small and isolated in the particular, but together they reflect a culture of intimidation that extends throughout the government—a culture abetted by a bureaucracy that stands to benefit from it."
He encouraged Americans to stand up for their First Amendment rights. "The only way to beat a bully is to fight back, and that’s what we all need to do."